Malta (with sister islands Camino and Gozo) is less than 100km south of Sicily, around 300 km from Tunisia and 815 km from Crete.
The country boasts the greatest density of historic sites of any country in the world. Early Neolithic temples are 1000 years older than the Great Pyramids of Egypt and 500 years older than Stonehenge. No wonder the producers of Games of Thrones, and movies such as Gladiator and Troy, chose Malta as a location.
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I arrived in 37°C heat, enticed from the Cape winter by a friend working on the island. Soon we were driving on roads edged with pink- and white-blooming oleander. In rural areas, packed-stone walls were overhung by huge prickly pear bushes, carob and olive trees.
Pale cream limestone forts topped the hillsides, with enormous flags flapping in the slight breeze. How magical it must be to travel with children and tell them about the real-life Knights of St John! These soldiers took part in the Crusades, occupied the Greek island of Rhodes for two centuries, then wandered for seven years before finding refuge in Malta.
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To the relief of the inland locals, the knights settled on the coast and set about building fortifications. Valletta, Malta’s current capital, is still enclosed by massive 16th and 17th century walls, designed to keep out the Ottoman Turks.
The knights were a multi-national force, each with their own headquarters and duties. Every knight, often from a wealthy European family, presented a gift on admission. And their leaders had money, ambition, and national pride at stake.
Vying to show who had the greatest vision and most bling has left a legacy of fabulous cathedrals, churches, palaces and official buildings that are layered with magnificent paintings, sculptures, furniture and tapestries.
Must-see St John’s Co-Cathedral has an austere exterior which doesn’t prepare you for its dazzling, baroque interior. Ceilings are extravagantly decorated, floors consist of intricately inlaid marble tombstones, and a side room houses two magnificent Caravaggio paintings.
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Malta, however, isn’t limited to historic treasures. It also serves up contemporary cool, including the best gin bar I’ve ever visited. The National Arts Festival, in full swing, offered a taste of why Valletta’s the 2018 European Capital of Culture.
Italian architect Renzo Piano (think Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and London’s Shard) is responsible for rejuvenating the city entrance. This includes the city gate, an open-air theatre within the ruins of the former Royal opera house and a new Parliament building.
Valletta itself is small with a straightforward grid layout, which makes it easy to explore. Start with broad Republic Street, sloping from the city gate down to Fort St Elmo. Another popular thoroughfare is Merchant Street, with a market, cafes and shops. Some are delightful family outlets, while modern stores showcase international fashion brands.
On a public holiday, with other South Africans, we drove to the magnificent Dingli Cliffs, rising about 250 metres above sea level. Then further south, to the Blue Grotto, a deep sea cave.
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Our final destination was a picturesque harbour in the south-east, Marsaxlokk Bay. It’s a photographer’s dream of traditional fishing boats, with mythical eyes painted on colourful prows. This is a popular destination for Sunday family lunches with its plentiful fresh fish and a market.
We also caught the ferry to Gozo, an island only 25 minutes away. In the capital, Victoria, we walked up a picturesque street to the citadel, a massive fortified area. The European Union’s funded the restoration of elevated ramparts with wonderful views of yet more forts, and terraced fields with green crops and freshly harvested hay.
Inside there’s a magnificent cathedral, old law courts, prison and a knights’ armoury. A labyrinth of townhouses and rooms has been transformed into museums and craft shops. Walking back, we ducked into shops stocked with traditional preserves and capers, local prickly pear or carob liqueur, and craft beer. Xlendi, a beautiful inlet with a sandy beach and turquoise sea, was ideal for swimming.
The best destination was kept for last: the ancient capital of Mdina, still home to aristocratic families. It’s reached by a narrow stone bridge, over a moat, and features elegant homes, palaces and a few shops and restaurants.
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My favourite find here was Palazzo Falson, the historic home of an artist, raconteur and collector. It’s a microcosm of Malta’s multiple treasures: naval paintings, knight’s armour, a kitchen representing Mediterranean cuisine, and reception areas with fine carpets and tapestries.
Whether you enjoy bargain-hunting in Italian discount outlets, poring over artefacts, drinking cocktails or just lazing in the sun, ancient and modern Malta has perennial appeal.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
GETTING THERE: Fly to Valletta via Dubai on Emirates, with an hour-long stop on Cyprus. Turkish Airlines is an alternative
VISAS: South Africans need Schengen visas.
WHERE TO STAY: Le Meridien Hotel in St Julien’s, 15 minute bus ride from the Capital (lemeridienmalta.com) – Sliema and St Julian’s for good hotels, shops and restaurants. Paceville for night owls with its casino, bars, nightclubs and restaurants.
FIND OUT MORE: English is spoken widely, eating out is affordable: €2 for a cappuccino, €25 for dinner with wine and coffee. Try Peperoncino and Piccolo Padre in St Julien’s, gin and tapas at Yard 32, Valletta.